Liebster Award

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Mr. TeaTime at Critical TeaTime nominated me for a Leibster Award which is a way for amateur bloggers to recognize one another. I haven’t read much of Mr. TeaTime’s work, but from what I have seen (his recent-ish Bioshock Infinite post) it looks pretty good.

In accordance with the award’s rules, Mr. TeaTime asked me twelve questions related to our shared topic. Here are questions and my responses:

 

  1. What game melts your cold critic heart? Meaning a game you know is flawed and has issues, but you cannot dislike it and will defend it until the end of time.

Colosseum: Road to Freedom was a 2005 PS2 release which I doubt anyone remembers today let alone cared about back then. While I’m not sure how such a buggy, incomplete mess of a game even made it to launch, it holds a special place in my heart for being one of the greatest mixtures of good ideas with bad execution I’ve ever seen.

Colosseum is the closest thing to Madden: Gladiator Edition we may ever see (which I wrote a bit about here). That core concept alone is so endearing that it’s a travesty no one else has picked it up since. You play as a slave (with a player-chosen country of origin and former profession) who in captured and sent to Rome to live and die as a gladiator in the hopes of one day saving up enough money earned from victorious bouts to buy your own freedom. Every day you either train at the “ludus” to upgrade your stats or go to one of two arenas where you can choose what fights to enter, earn money prizes, and shop for better equipment.

Seriously, it’s a great fucking system. It provides a more than adequate set up and motivation for the somewhat monotonous hack-and-slash combat where the next reward (an expensive new sword, a higher gladiator rank, etc.) is always just around the corner. Even the combat was a brilliantly original system where the location of a weapon strike was coordinated with placement of the button on the controller (ie. “triangle” aims high, “square” aims left, etc.). With proper tweaking there was tremendous potential for Colosseum’s combat to become a revolutionary take both on PvE and duel melee fighting.

But absolutely everything about the game was incompetently executed, if not outright broken. Enemy AI was generally braindead to the point that most gladiators wouldn’t even bother trying to defend themselves as you hacked away at their heads with an axe (duel AI was far better, but only by being recklessly aggressive, much like Super Smash Bros AI). The four combat styles (unarmed, small shield, big shield, and dual wield) were cool but helplessly unbalanced. There weren’t enough match types and most were slight variations on each other. A pointless story takes up too much time and laughably, blatantly rips of Gladiator at every available opportunity. The needlessly punishing weapon-drop system could more or less end your chances for survival at any point throughout a 20 hour campaign.

And yet I’ve played through Colosseum at least ten times. Back when it came out I introduced it to a couple of friends and we poured dozens of hours into its primitive multiplayer duels. There are so many great ideas buried under so much shit that if I even end up being a billionaire somehow someday, I’m going to find the old developers, give them a truck-load of cash, and tell them to remake the damn thing with some proper oversight and play testing.

Anyway, if you have a PS2 and can find Colosseum: Road to Freedom on Amazon or something, try it out.

  1. What was, in your opinion, the greatest invention in the video game market? This can be hardware, mechanics, and engines, anything that revolutionized gaming for you.

I have no idea.

To not cop out on the question, if I narrowed down the time frame to the last ten years, I would answer… Steam. Steam has done more to revitalize video game creativity than pretty much anything ever by providing a viable platform for indie developers. Without Steam we wouldn’t have Limbo, Braid, Papers Please, FLT: Faster than Light, Bastion, Transistor, Gone Home, Firewatch, Tharsis, the Hotline Miamis, Oxenfree, and so many other fantastic games. It’s hard to imagine that before Steam there really wasn’t any space between “big-budget AAA game” and “Popcap internet casual game,” but now there’s everything from $1 platformers to $40 mid-range shooters thanks to digital distribution and an efficient commercial platform. (It’s also worth noting that Playstation Plus, XBOX Live Arcade, and GOG.com probably wouldn’t exist without Steam.)

 

  1. What game was your first addiction? Not just a game you would play, but a game that stuck with you and you could not wait to get back to, and you put hours upon hours into it.

Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty is the game that not only really got me into video games, but into storytelling and aesthetics in general.

I first played it a few months after release in 2001 (when I was nine years old) at a friend’s house and absolutely fell in love with it. We spent hours messing with guards, drawing smiley faces on people with the tranquilizer gun, and dragging bodies around the Tanker. When I finally bought the game I probably played through its entirety at least twenty times that year, and still play it once every year or so.

Honorable mentions go to Medieval Total War, Super Smash Bros. Melee, and Civilization IV.

 

  1. Did a game ever punch you in the guts (metaphorically of course, although I’d love to hear any literal cases)? Meaning a moment (can also be an ending) that made you feel sick/bad/sad/lifeless.

Yes, plenty of times. Two big moments that immediately come to mind…

***************SPOILERS FOR THE WITCHER 3 and TRANSISTOR***************

In The Witcher 3 when Geralt finds Ciri in the cabin on the foggy island and thinks she is dead is a fantastic moment. It’s a great and rare example of a video game using cinematography (which all cinematic games should always be doing, but for some reason don’t).

In Transistor when Red kills herself. Or transfers her consciousness into the transistor or whatever. While the visuals are great, it’s really the sounds which sell the scene. A combination of the song “Blank Canvas” and Logan Cunningham’s magical voice acting just completely took over me. Easily one of, if not the saddest moments in any video game I’ve ever experienced. Though fortunately it ended up being more of a bitter sweet moment in the end.

 

  1. What abstract concept needs a playable version to better understand it? Can we make people understand what depression is like by letting them play it, for instance?

I think this is a bit too broad of a question for me to answer. I think all legitimate art is about concretizing abstract concepts. I have plenty of video game ideas but nothing quite like “depression” immediately come to mind.

Though the mention of depression in the question did make me think of loneliness, or how interesting it is that video games seem really, really good at conveying loneliness. Shadow of the Colossus, Silent Hills 2, 3, 4, The Long Dark, and Firewatch all come to mind. Maybe all those years of making games about guys running around big environments alone have really paid off.

 

  1. What was the best soundtrack-visual-gameplay combination moment in a game for you? A moment where music, gameplay, and visuals amplified each other to new heights.

See description of Transistor in Question 4. Actually everything in Transistor could be the answer to question 6. The soundtrack, voice acting (I’ve listened to all of Royce Brackett’s dialogue on youtube too many times to count), and the sound effects are absolutely perfect. The height of the craft.

I also have to give a special mention to the shrieking sound in the Metal Gear Solids whenever you’re spotted by an enemy. I’ve put god knows how many hours into those games but it still makes me jump every single time.

 

  1. Which sequence would you have loved to play, but sadly it was only a cutscene? Keep in mind that the sequence should also be playable, theoretically at least, within the boundaries of the game.

I hear that other players and critics are bothered by this phenomenon a lot, but to be honest it was never an issue to me. The exception to this rule would be when characters act incredibly stupidly during cutscenes. Shamus Young at Twenty Sided discusses this a lot.

For instance, there’s a scene in 2008’s Tomb Raider where Laura Croft sneaks up on the main bad guy giving a speech to his subordinates in a cave. Laura takes out her bow, shoots at the main bad and misses, so his goons run over to Laura, grab her, and capture her. Ok… but Laura has six guns in her possession and has already killed hundreds of these goons. If I had been in control I could have easily shot the main bad guy and then mowed down his underlings (especially since they all charged at Laura rather than trying to shoot her).

Ughhhh, pure laziness. Does nothing but create a disconnect between the narrative and the player.

 

  1. What was the best and worst line of dialogue in a video game for you? Can also be a piece of a conversation.

Nothing immediately comes to mind, though I could potentially find the answer to both prompts in any single Metal Gear game. Or Final Fantasy X.

 

  1. A game you would force upon every person to finish, because it would change their life?

Papers, Please. It isn’t my absolute favorite game of all time (though it is undoubtedly a great game), nor do I think it’s the single most profound game in existence (though it is profound), but if I am forcing people against their will to play a game, it had better convey its narrative perfectly through its mechanics. And I can’t thing a game with a better mechanical-narrative integration than Papers, Please.

As to how it would change a person who played it… I don’t think the game can possibly be finished without having some sort of influence on the way a person views bureaucracy, convoluted rule-based systems, zero-sum games, and Soviet-socialism.

The most powerful element of which is the way the game contextualizes bureaucracy and rule-making. I think most people have this intuitive sense that the way to fix any given system is just to create a bunch of rules for the participants in the system to follow. I have never seen anything ever demonstrate the folly of that assumption better than Papers, Please. It does not matter how intelligent or benevolent an individual is, changing the rules within a system from a top-down perspective will have unintended consequences, and those consequences will nearly always be negative.

Now that I think of it, Papers, Please is sort of the anti-Sim City, Total War, Civilization, etc. game where some benevolent, omnipotent force magically makes the world better by controlling complex societies like a chess board. The player-character in Papers, Please is like the unfortunate peasant in a Civilization city who gets nukes in a war over a stupid border city in an endless game.

 

10. Who is one of the best voice actors in video games for you, plus the performance              that sold you on his/her talent?

Logan Cunningham of Bastion and Transistor. I don’t know what I can really say about him. I know nothing about music or voice acting, but I know that when he inhabits a character, he feels more real than your life-long best friend.

Also, even though no one agrees with me, Keifer Sutherland gave one of the greatest vocal performances of all time as Venom Snake in Metal Gear Solid V: the Phantom Pain.

 

      11. Are video games art for you and why / why not?

Yes.

Long answer – https://objectivevgaesthetics.wordpress.com/2015/08/10/art-and-objectivity/

Short answer – Art is the physical manifestation of abstract concepts. In general, video games can do this just as well as literature, paintings, movies, etc, though video games are undoubtedly better in certain aspects (I don’t think any medium can come close to what video games can do with the horror genre) and undoubtedly worse in others (I’m still trying to wrap my head around this concept, but video games seem to struggle with subtle emotional progression, I may write about this later).

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